The highly anticipated 2017 White House strategy for Afghanistan has many experts warning there are no good policy options, let alone an effective number of U.S. troops that will solve what Gen. John Nicholson calls a “ stalemate” between insurgents and the Afghan government. Given recent Taliban gains in places such as Helmand and Kunduz, and devastating attacks in the heart of the capital Kabul, the U.S. metric for success sits on a dreary spectrum of lose now, lose later or try not to lose at all . One thing is for certain, the outcome for Afghanistan rests no longer on the shoulders of the United States, rather it is Afghanistan’s burden to bear. The United States has proven inept at drive-through state building—not because it is corrupt or unskilled, but because state-building is complex and long term. Retired Gen. David Petraeus recently called the mission in Afghanistan “ a generational struggle ” akin to our security objectives in Korea. If we truly seek success, as Petraeus argues, we need to “be there for the long haul.” But what being there looks like is another question. A sustainable long-term strategic vision would prioritize going “urban” over going “local” in Afghanistan.
Recent news suggests the White House has given Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his generals more leeway on battlefield decisions , even while troop increases may remain modest ( 3,900 by one report ). Any strategy will likely bring with it greater pressure on regional neighbors, an increase in troops to support Afghan battalions on the front lines, and greater focus on building an “ enduring counterterrorism platform ” in the region. This likely means more American troops engaging at the local level. One proposal by White House strategists moves to privatize the war effort , surging contractors with CIA and Special Forces to “ create indigenous capacity ” and of course, “save taxpayers money” with a new American “viceroy” of Afghanistan. Any strategy that focuses on positioning U.S troops at the “local” level risks taking the United States down a hole that may only deepen its combat commitments in Afghanistan. During the height of U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan in 2009, proponents of counterinsurgency called for a “ local” strategy where U.S. Special Operations and conventional units embedded within villages and patrolled the countryside to build local capacity and connect rural areas to the central government. Idealistic plans were often followed by clever titles such as “government-in-a-box,” the “model village,” or “village stability operations.” In some cases, these programs were successful at the local level, but at the national level, they often failed in terms of resourcing, oversight and direction . Going local only served to prolong the conflict and removed United States and NATO partners away from more important functions of state building–enhancing urban capacity, empowering civil society institutions, such as local governance initiatives, and bolstering the necessary functions of state bureaucracy. A winning strategy in Afghanistan that will fulfill U.S. security objectives needs to not only enhance the power of Kabul and its urban constituents, but decentralize security, development and governance priorities away from the United States and towards Afghanistan and its people.
Proponents of local statebuilding in Afghanistan contend that the nature of Afghan politics are local, power and legitimacy are held by tribes and clans in the rural areas, and that historic attempts to centralize authority from Kabul have always failed. They are partially correct. The Musahiban Dynasty (1929–73) in Afghanistan realized the dangers of overcommitting the state to influence the periphery, while under appreciating the power of tribal institutions. The Musahiban elites ruling from Kabul used a careful balance of carrots and sticks to ensure loyalty from the periphery and prevent large-scale internal rebellions. Their methods often included freedom from taxation and conscription, disappearing outspoken critics, and rewarding loyal clients. Local statebuilding proponents admire the relative stability of the Musahiban era and point to the state’s use of tribal militias and decentralized governance as critical methods to replicate. The special-operations community, long criticized for spending too much time on kill/capture missions , found renewed purpose as they reclaimed their mission to win “by, with and through” local powerbrokers and communities. Going local allowed them to expand state presence to the periphery–at least on paper–through greater intelligence assets, increased combat outposts and enhanced presence of local police. Outside, observers saw something different — a neo-imperial phase of U.S. statecraft to change the game through the mantra of “going local.” Paramilitary intelligence operations often led to allegations of abuse and torture , combat outposts were often sources of insider-outsider tensions , and Afghan local police routinely preyed on the civilian population and created new levels of insecurity. While the U.S. Special Operations community dominated the state building project in Afghanistan, it did so while diplomatic and nonviolent stability practitioners were predominantly marginalized.